Last weekend I attended the Hello Etsy conference held in partnership with the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY. This was the 3rd annual conference put on by Etsy, the digital marketplace to ‘buy and sell all things handmade, vintage and supplies.’ I went as part my ethnographic fieldwork for my dissertation research, which examines the ‘cultural economy of craft’ and questions women’s creative labour in informal networks of cultural production. Etsy—as marketplace, as community and as significant site of social and cultural data, did not create the indie craft movement, but it has undoubtedly made it bigger.
The conference explored four central themes: reimagining economy; reimagining work; reimagining consumption; and reimagining community. Speakers included Dr. Jay Parkinson, physician and founder of Hello Health and Sherpaa; Robin Chase of Zipcar; and opening keynote Jeremy Rifkin, author of the Third Industrial Revolution, among others. There were also a series of creative workshops available at the end of the last day where attendees could learn strategies toward improving their Etsy shop, or try out puppet-making, as examples. Chad Dickerson, Etsy CEO, opened the conference speaking about Etsy’s vision as a company that “empowers small business to change the global economy.” Interestingly, there was very little talk of craft, in favour of broader themes around the sharing economy, local consumption, sustainability and making work more humane.
There was a palpable energy among the crowd—usually connected through the interfaces and media of the Etsy site, its blogs and social spaces, working oftentimes alone in studio spaces, basements, garages and kitchens making stuff. In all my conversations at the Etsy gathering, people were eager to share, to meet others like them, to struggle through their questions of creative work and entrepreneurship. They spoke of craving a sense of community and physical connection among others like them.
Rasanath Dasa’s talk on ‘Being human at work’ was the moment of the conference that really stood out for me. A former Wall Street banker turned Bhakti monk, Dasa spoke of what he saw as the unspoken expectation at most companies, that you park your emotional life at the door, put on your game face, and keep conversation light and professional. In short, you show only one dimension of yourself and try to suppress the rest. But at what cost, he asked? He spoke of the many masks we wear and how the more preoccupied we are with emotions we can’t express, the less focus we bring to our work. These are the types of questions that I think often go unasked among grad students and researchers as well. This is not just a question for those working outside the university. In going to the Etsy conference, I brought my creative self, my academic self, my feminist self, my start-up/entrepreneurial self, my tired and sometimes doubtful self, my ‘looking for validation’ self. Yet, I also felt I needed to perform legitimacy; that my credibility as someone with a successful start-up background now turned academic was the mask that I should wear. I had goals. I need data and interviews. And, I got some fascinating insights into the culture of makers and the companies that need them to prosper. I did some interviews. Met some excellent people whose experiences will provide rich nuance to my research. Yet, I also faced some disappointments. My requests for interviews of Etsy management were politely declined, even after I had done all the quote-unquote right things to establish myself and demonstrate the value of my research. What I think this raises is the importance of how we acknowledge all of ourselves and the research intricacies. That Dasa’s call to be able to integrate and maximize our human potential, rather than divide and reduce it, is heeded. This is the true power of cultural research.